America lost more than it realized today. Styron was, of course, appreciated by a great number of writers, readers, and critics. But, these days, he isn't usually mentioned in the same sentence as Philip Roth, John Updike, or Norman Mailer, the elder statesmen of contemporary American literature. There are some legitimate reasons for that. Reputation is often simply a function of output and, since 1993, Styron hadn't published anything new. He was then dealing with serious depression, which he wrote eloquently about in one of his last works, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, and he would be in and out of hospitals from there.
But reputation should also be about literary accomplishment, and it is arguable that, on that score, Styron had something on Roth and Updike. As much I like their work, reading Roth and Updike often feels like watching a Woody Allen film. That is to say, you always know what you're going to get. It's often the same phrasing, voice, characters, and plot turns packaged a little differently. And they're usually sticking to what they know. With Roth, you get the Jews of Newark; with Woody, it's the Jews of the Upper East Side. Not much beyond.
With Styron, it's a different deal. Winning the Pulitzer Prize with The Confessions of Nat Turner, you find Styron, a white southern male living in the mid-1960s, daring to inhabit the mind of a black slave as he works through the planning and execution of a sustained revolt in 1831. Then, fast forward to 1979, to Sophie's Choice, and we find Styron now getting into the head of Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Catholic woman, who escaped death in a Holocaust concentration camp, but not without having to make unthinkable decisions and suffering losses that make madness and suicide sadly inevitable. Styron was a tremendous stylist, but also a daring inhabitor of radically different worlds, which gets back to why America lost today more than it really knows. Read The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice. They are among our best.
New York Times, Styron Obit
A New York Times Retrospective
A re-airing of a NPR (Fresh Air) interview from 1990